Revolutionary Measures

Is PR changing at last?

Last week’s Chartered Institute of PR (CIPR) East Anglia conference reminded me of much of the good – and the bad – about the profession. For a start the half day event brought together a really diverse group of PR practitioners, all enthusiastic about their profession and what it could achieve for businesses. And the overall theme of the conference – why PR needs to step up, embrace new skills and demonstrate the value it creates – is immensely important in a world where digital is transforming the marketing, and business, landscape

English: Cambridge Science Park Trinity Centre...

But – and it is a big but – I can remember going to events debating these issues five or possibly ten years ago. And even some of the presenters admitted that they still find it hard to persuade clients that measurement needs to go beyond counting the number of clippings or the advertising value equivalent of coverage. Perhaps most damning of all there is still a huge gender pay gap, of an average of over £8,000 between women and men doing comparable jobs, and a relative shortage of females in the higher echelons of the PR profession. In a sector where 70% of the workforce is female, this is nothing short of a disgrace. Essentially much of this comes down to PR not being taken seriously – we’re expected to either be Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous or Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It. While I’d relish the chance to drink as much as the former while working or swear as much as the latter without attracting disciplinary action, it is far from the truth.

So PR needs to change, and the first step, like Patsy attending Alcoholics Anonymous, is recognising the need to do things differently. While there was a lot of repetition in the different presentations, there was also a lot to pick up and learn from. I’d distil it into four points:

1. This is a great time to work in PR
Corporate reputation matters: to sales, to the share price, to recruitment, and to overall business success. Customer relationships are vital to build loyalty and revenues. Given its background, PR is the profession best placed to manage both of these, but to do so it needs to change, digitise and talk the language of business. As Sarah Pinch, the current CIPR president, pointed out, “Strategic counsel can’t be provided by a robot.” Only by upping its game will PR avoid being automated.

2. PR needs to integrate
While it is best placed to help companies improve their reputation and relationships, PR can’t do it alone. It has to work with every other department of the business, from finance and sales to customer service and IT, to create a cohesive approach that focuses on the overall reputation of the organisation. It needs to adopt a team of teams approach, working with colleagues with different skills to achieve results.

3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
There was a lot of talk about the need for measurement and why it was important, but fewer examples of how PR could be measured in a way that linked directly to business KPIs. As I’ve said the industry has been talking for years about the need to move from outputs (the number of clips or readers) to outcomes (changes to perception or behaviour that can be directly credited to PR). There are plenty of apocryphal stories of how reading that one article led effortlessly to a sale, or a campaign enabled a company to shift its market positioning, but one of the major issues is measuring this on a consistent, reliable basis. One of the key issues, particularly for smaller agencies and businesses, is that measurement costs money – and often clients are unwilling to pay for it or don’t see its value. That means it has to come out of budget that would otherwise be spent on PR programmes, lessening what can be done, and meaning agencies may well lose out in beauty parades to rivals that promise more.

4. Think like the board
As Denise Kaufmann of Ketchum said, quoting W. Edward Deming, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” PR needs to understand what senior management is looking for and ensure it is talking the same language. And that means ensuring PR targets directly map to corporate objectives, and are presented in a clear, business language. Think like an MBA and speak data, rather than discussing size and number of clips. This requires a change of mindset, but the potential rewards are enormous in terms of prestige, preserving/growing budgets and being recognised as crucial to the business. Hugh Davies, until recently the corporate affairs director of 3, gave his advice on advancing your PR career: be a team player, be confident, build business understanding, and create a body of evidence to support your ideas if you want to be taken seriously.

And by building trust with the board, the job of PR could also become slightly easier. We’ve all seen PR wonderful campaigns that are quickly undermined by a corporate scandal or cock-up that no-one thought to tell the communications department about until it became a crisis. I’d hate to be a PR person for VW at the moment for example. By stepping up to senior management, PR will at the very least have earlier warning of such issues, rather than having to deal with the aftermath.

It is easy to see PR as a profession that just provides window dressing to an organisation – and in the past PRs have not helped themselves with their behaviour or attitude. But the CIPR East Anglia Conference showed that attitudes are changing, and finally we may be solving our own reputational problems.

November 25, 2015 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Content writing – the key new business skill

Having worked in PR for 20 plus years I’ve seen the power that well-written, relevant and targeted content can deliver for companies. Whether it is a pitch that leads to an article read by the target buyer at a B2B company that causes them to make contact with a client, or a press release that boosts name recognition with a potential investor or acquirer, public relations has always had the ability to deliver the right messages to the right audience at the right time.

Nederlands: Linked In icon

And the advent of blogs and social media has simply increased the importance of good content – helping engage with potential customers and position an organisation as an industry expert even before the target actively starts research. Additionally, with more and more of the buying journey taking place online, the SEO benefits of relevant, topical content cannot be underestimated when customers typically start the research process via Google or industry websites.

All of this is pretty well-known, but what I’ve seen over the last year or so is the use of content to reinforce the personal brand of business people. I don’t necessarily mean CEOs or entrepreneurs, who have always relied on the oxygen of publicity to build their reputations, but middle ranking managers on their way up. Rather than (or perhaps as well as) networking internally and bending the ear of their bosses with their knowledge and industry insight, they are now able to share through Twitter, and most particularly LinkedIn’s inbuilt blogging feature. This provides a platform which hosts individual’s content, as well as sharing it with their network, and further afield via LinkedIn Pulse. I’ve seen myself how incredibly powerful this is in keeping in touch with people you are connected to, and building your brand.

It seems to me that writing content is now one of the key skills that any manager needs, alongside technical knowledge of their particular field, understanding of their role (whether it is sales, administration or marketing, for example), and the basic business/financial nous that means they can read a spreadsheet and grasp the intricacies of a forecast and profit and loss account.

But making it easy to share content doesn’t necessarily make it easy to write good, well-thought out and grammatically correct pieces. The risk is that business people will jump on the content writing bandwagon and actually undermine their professional standing by penning incoherent, rambling or misspelled pieces.

To avoid this, here are six key ways of guarding against looking stupid when writing on LinkedIn. While the success of your content is up to you and your ideas, focusing on these ideas should help you remain professional and demonstrate leadership.

1. Be personal
People don’t want to read a corporate press release that simply been pasted into a LinkedIn blog post. By all means share interesting news from your company as an update on LinkedIn or Twitter, but a blog post should be personal and relate to your experiences and views on a subject. Obviously you need to balance your own thoughts and the views of your employer, but if necessary insert a statement that this a personal blog, not necessarily reflecting the position of the company you work for. However don’t be too personal – sharing too much detail about your home life or what you did at the weekend can alienate contacts, particularly if they only know you in a business environment.

2. Plan, plan, plan
So much content starts well and then rambles off into a dead end or randomly changes direction part way through. Sit down and write a skeleton of what you are going to say, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What points are you going to cover? What is your conclusion? What are the alternatives? I find it helps to do this with pen and paper but the important thing is to start by planning, not start and hope for the best.

Remember that you’re not writing War and Peace but creating something that people can read online in a few minutes. So keep it to a manageable length (800-1000 words), and if necessary split your piece in two to avoid your ideas being lost.

3. Don’t plagiarise
Good content teaches someone something or moves the debate on, and remember that it represents you and your personal brand. Therefore don’t simply rip off other people’s ideas without giving them credit and a link to their work. Share your content with them and they may well share it in turn with their networks, boosting your reach.

4. Proof it
We all think we’re wonderful at spelling, but everyone has weak points, so make sure you spell check everything that you’ve written and I advise printing it out to proof it properly. It is best to write a piece, and then come back and proof it later on, giving you the advantage of fresh eyes. Always pass the article to someone else to review as well – whether they are part of your target audience or not, they can pick up mistakes that you’ve missed or areas where things need to be made clearer.

5. Share it!
Obviously LinkedIn automatically shares content you’ve created with your own network, but that should only be part of your outreach. Use Twitter to spread the word further and post the article on any relevant LinkedIn groups that you are a member of. You can even email it contacts if you think it would be of interest and help deepen engagement – but don’t just blast it out to your entire contact book.

6. And repeat
A single post is unlikely to make you a thought leader so look to create content regularly. It doesn’t matter if it is every week or every month, but set yourself a schedule and try and post at a regular time so that people eventually come to expect (and hopefully look for) your articles. Little and often beats writing a huge first post and then losing interest and going off to do something else.

Content writing is becoming a key business skill – but bear in mind that the world is full of bad or simply unread content. So take the time to think it through first before hitting the keyboard if you want to build your reputation as a thought leader.

November 18, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sport – the dirtiest business of all?

In an age of social media and always-on news, every brand can feel that it is constantly under attack, even if it is for what seems like trivial reasons. Surly barista serve you coffee? Unclean hotel room? Consumers can share their thoughts and views with the world in seconds, and quite often the resulting viral storm will be intense, but fade as quickly as it came into being.

English: panoramic shot of the olympic stadium...

In contrast, the world of sport, or more specifically its administration, is facing an unprecedented attack from both media and the public. FIFA has now been joined in the dock by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with senior figures alleged to have taken bribes to ensure that failed drugs tests never saw the light of day. A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) points the finger at doping on a massive scale by Russian athletes, implicating senior figures in its government, while French prosecutors have arrested Lamine Diack, the ex-head of the IAAF, who is accused of receiving bribes of over €1 million to cover up failed tests. And it isn’t that long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IoC) had to confess that cities had ‘bought’ the right to host the games, while the close links between the then senior leadership at cycling’s governing body the UCI and drug cheat Lance Armstrong have also been highlighted.

On the outside it seems like all these organisations have a culture where too much power and a sense of entitlement mix with control over major decisions that have big political or financial impacts. As the head of UK Athletics pointed out, the leader of the IAAF is referred to as Mr President, inflating the holder’s ego as a matter of course.

Essentially sports administrators are in the spotlight, and need to rebuild their credibility. I’d see five areas to focus on:

1.Look wider for staff
Administrators seem to be either ex-athletes, those that have served their time in country federations or people attracted by the glamour of working for sporting organisations. Often promotion relies on who you know, rather than how good you are at your job. It is time to change this by recruiting capable figures from outside sport to lead administrations. They obviously need to know about the sport they are leading, and have an enthusiasm for it, but they don’t necessarily have to have spent their life in it. By bringing in outside managers, with the right skills (and no links of patronage), it will send a clear message that administrations want to change.

2.End culture of entitlement
The IoC is widely seen to have cleaned up its act, yet its bureaucrats still expect the world to revolve around them. The sell-out London Olympics saw gaps in the venues as “members of the Olympic family” decided not to bother going to certain events, while one of the reasons that Norway pulled out of bidding for the next Winter Olympics were demands for free booze for bureaucrats at the stadium and a cocktail party with the King. No one is against hard-working administrators having access to events as part of their roles, but it should be a privilege, not a right.

I’ve said it before about voting for the World Cup, but every major decision being taken needs to be transparent and auditable. So no secret ballots – the results of who voted for who should be public at the time and open to the widest possible constituency to avoid any allegations of impropriety. All activities, particularly those involving potentially controversial subjects such as drug testing and financial matters, should be audited independently by consultancies that actually understand them, rather than treating the whole thing as a tick box exercise. The same applies to new hires, who should have to declare any business interests to links to particular countries/teams/companies.

4.Move offices
The IAAF probably has strong tax reasons for being based in Monaco, while FIFA and the UCI (amongst others) have headquarters in neutral, but secretive, Switzerland. At a time when credibility is tenuous, location matters, so associations need to look at moving to more ‘normal’ jurisdictions where they can be subject to proper scrutiny. It should also help with recruiting from a wider talent pool.

5.Be more independent from political control
As the Russian doping scandal (and winning Russian bid for the World Cup) both show, it is easy for administrations to become subject to outside political influences. This is true not just in Russia, but other countries where sport is seen as a tool of soft power, irrespective of the rules. Therefore all local administrations need to be independent of government, without members of ruling families or parties running them to avoid any allegations of bias.

Sport has the ability to bring people around the world together – a fact that administrators and their marketers are always reminding us of. This cuts both ways – not only do fans join together to salute outstanding athletic achievements, but they can equally unite to condemn the administrators that are destroying the sports that they love.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Bond, public relations and the drive for increased surveillance

I read recently that government ministers spend over a quarter of their time on public relations or similar activities. That’s not surprising given they face a combination of an ever more cynical electorate, lobbyists, pressure groups, opposition MPs and, of course, their own backbenchers.

Obviously everyone thinks they have an idea about the bad side of government spin, with its mixture of cunning, bullying and calling in favours (as exemplified by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It). But increasingly PR is necessary to try to educate and convince the press and public about the merits of a decision, in order to gain the support it needs.

The perfect case in point is the current debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill, a draft of which is being published this week. This aims to strengthen the capabilities of the security services to detect and foil crime. However in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the scale of current surveillance technology, and how it is used, there is widespread worry about what new legislation will enable the security services to do.

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

In the balance between privacy and law enforcement, where do you draw the line? For example, the draft bill will compel Internet Service Providers to retain a full record of your online activity for 12 months, in case they are needed for investigations. The vast majority of us would support their use against terrorists, paedophiles and organised crime, but the fact that a record of all of our surfing is stored and can potentially be accessed by law enforcement officers does scare and worry people.

Because of this, there has been an unprecedented campaign to win over the public. The Times was given high level access to Britain’s spy agencies, from GCHQ to MI5 and MI6, for example. This enabled those backing the bill to get their message across that they are foiling plots aimed at the UK on a regular basis and that without changes to the law it is only a matter of time before something slips through the net.

At the same time the anti-campaign has received backing from an unlikely corner – James Bond himself. The latest Bond movie, Spectre, features the normal array of international bad guys plotting to take over the world. But the key twist (spoiler alert) is that they want to do this by gaining access to the surveillance systems of the security services around the world – even to the extent of bankrolling a new UK security service building. Of course, in the end their evil plot is defeated, but the interesting point is that C, the new head of British joint intelligence, is a bad guy, in league with the chief villain himself. Hardly the ringing endorsement of increased surveillance that the public would expect – and perhaps politicians backing the bill were hoping for.

With the bill itself just published, expect the debate to rage on – with public relations a key tactic used by both sides to put their case. Though what the government and security services can do to top James Bond will be an interesting challenge……

November 4, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talk Talk – how to turn a crisis into a PR disaster

Last week’s announcement from Talk Talk that its website had been hacked and customer details (including bank account information) had potentially been stolen has turned into a disaster for the company. The stock price slumped by over 10% and MPs have called for an inquiry into whether the firm’s failure to encrypt data put customer information at risk.TalkTalk

Could things have been handled differently – and would they have changed the reaction of both the public and the media?

Firstly, it is worth re-stating that Talk Talk has been the victim of a crime. Initial fanciful rumours that the perpetrators were Russian Jihadis now look wide of the mark, with the police instead arresting a 15 year old boy from Northern Ireland, but the fact remains that its site was hacked. Additionally some of the press coverage has been incredibly sensationalist, with lurid stories of customers having their bank accounts cleared out by fraudsters, even though they were not necessarily linked to the hack itself.

However there are two questions that any business involved in crisis management needs to answer – did it meet the expected standards before the incident, and did it then deal with the situation in a way that reassured customers and other stakeholders?

I’d say that the response to both of these is a No. For a start, failure to encrypt customer details (at a time when people like Apple encrypt everything) is a glaring security hole that should have been filled. But as a PR person I’d point out five ways they’ve not managed the crisis well:

1          Telling press before customers
The first thing most customers knew about the hack was when they turned on the news or listened to the radio. The reason given by chief executive Dido Harding for making contact through the media, as opposed to directly speaking to customers, was that the sheer number of subscribers made this impossible. Talk Talk should have done both – customers wanted a direct response rather than just hearing about it on Radio 4.

2          Incomplete information
You can’t blame Talk Talk for initially overstating the scale of the attack – it obviously needed to get the announcement of the hack out as quickly as possible, rather than laboriously go through all its account details to see what had been compromised. And the story about the afore-mentioned Russian Jihadis came from other sources. However it didn’t provide a full picture to its customers early enough. I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and left six months ago – yet nowhere on its FAQ did it say anything about whether my details were at risk. Much later on Talk Talk admitted that ex-customer information could also have been hacked, but it demonstrates that the entire response was not well thought through.

3          Failure to stay on top of the story
After its initial apology, the story seemed to be going Talk Talk’s way, with pundits talking about the growing threat of cyber crime, and the company’s clear advice to change passwords being repeated across all media. But then the story changed, with the initial hack being downplayed and the press focusing on the failure to encrypt data. As Jacques de Cock of the London School of Marketing pointed out, it seemed to share its customers’ panic, rather than taking decisive action. The agenda shifted against Talk Talk, positioning it as culpable in its own downfall and not having a handle on what was going on.

4          Poor reputation
As I mentioned, I’m an ex-Talk Talk customer, and I found it a frustrating and unhelpful organisation to deal with. I kept getting regular sales calls, with agents trying to upsell me from my basic package and when I moved home it made me honour a month’s notice period on my contract – even though it said it couldn’t provide service at my new address. The impression I got was of an organisation that didn’t care about its customers, except for the money it could make from them, and that cut corners where it could to save a pound or two. Indeed I remember hearing Dido Harding on the Media Show on Radio 4, likening the firm to a clapped-out car being driven over the speed limit down the motorway, hanging onto the competition. Very few telecoms firms deliver good customer service, but I’m convinced Talk Talk’s poor reputation meant that commentators and customers automatically assumed the worst had happened.

5          Lack of empathy
Compounding customer annoyance, Talk Talk yesterday said that it would charge a termination fee to any customers looking to leave, unless they could prove that money had been stolen from their accounts due to the hack. Now, Talk Talk is obviously a business, and releasing all its customers from their contractual obligations could cause a huge dent in revenues – particularly given how badly the crisis has been handled. But the way the message has been delivered smacks of weakness and arrogance – it is almost as if it believes that customers would seize any excuse to leave, yet are stupid enough to forget the whole hack happened when it comes to contract renewal time. The company should have worked out some sort of half way house, allowing customers to shorten contracts or pay a reduced termination fee as a goodwill gesture. It may have cost it more in the short term, but would have been a valuable first step in rebuilding the company’s reputation – and any good publicity would be welcome at this stage in the process.

Handling a crisis in today’s real-time world is difficult. The combination of continuous news, social media and a desire for instant scapegoats means it is impossible to control the story in the same way as in the past. However Talk Talk should have done better – and is now facing the prospect of real damage to its reputation and bottom line by failing to take decisive action or appearing to care about its customers. Every company should take note and update crisis management plans so that they don’t fall into the same trap.

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How my consultancy is bigger than Facebook UK – and that’s a bad thing


I’ve been in business for five years now, and things are going well. I’ve seen revenues for my PR agency grow every year, thanks to loyal clients and (if I say so myself) some wonderful work. Yet it was only when I saw how much corporation tax Facebook paid last year in the UK, that I realised exactly how well I was doing. Comparing our two tax bills, I’ve paid considerably more than the £4,327 Facebook shelled out in 2014. Therefore it stands to reason I must have made much more money than the social network, even if globally its profits were $2.9 billion. Its UK business must just be lagging behind the rest of operations – after all very few people use Facebook in this country.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Obviously this isn’t the case, and like companies from Starbucks to Google, Facebook has engineered its operations to minimise its tax bill. As a businessman myself I can understand this – but what I can’t understand is that it doesn’t take into account the reputational damage that results. After all, company filings are public documents that anyone can access, and there are enough people out there who know how to read a balance sheet and can therefore spot holes in a company’s story without needing to spend too much time investigating.

I even felt sorry for the poor PR spokesperson delegated to read out the anodyne statement that Facebook was compliant with UK law, and all staff paid income tax (how gracious!). Then I realised that the spokesperson was one of the 362 people that shared the £35.4m in bonuses that pushed Facebook’s corporation tax bill down so close to zero, and any sympathy evaporated.

On one hand companies talk about how important their brand, and brand values, are to their success, yet cheerfully spend their time undermining these very same values from within. Why? I think much of this comes from a fundamental disconnect between senior management and those responsible for public relations or brand reputation. They aren’t involved in senior-level decision making, meaning that no-one is pointing out the potential pitfalls of being seen as a poor corporate citizen. In an age of consumer power, the lack of a check on potential corporate skulduggery can prove fatal to a brand.

Ever since I’ve been in public relations, which is over 20 years, there have been calls for PR to have a seat on the board and to be more involved in setting strategy, rather than just delivering it. So why hasn’t it happened yet? Partly it comes down to PR’s own reputation, with the discipline seen as more Ab Fab than strategic, and limited in what it can achieve. The rise of digital and the increase in the importance of corporate reputation should have changed that, but my impression is that the overwhelming number of FTSE 100 companies still don’t have or seek senior level PR counsel until too late in the process.

It is therefore time for PR people to take a step up and build the business understanding that they need to communicate with other senior management. Talk their language, link campaigns and messages to business goals and objectives, and if necessary, scare the bejesus out of people by explaining the financial (and even judicial) consequences of not thinking through decisions or ignoring dubious practices. While Facebook’s tax policies haven’t hit its share price, just look at Volkswagen’s financial woes for an illustration of what happens when you cover up bad behaviour. Despite its US head admitting he was briefed on how the car maker could fool emissions tests in spring 2014, nothing was done to remedy the problem or to come clean.

Looking at the PR implications of business decisions shouldn’t just be limited to big companies with expensive communications departments. Every company has the potential to be caught out if it transgresses the brand values that it trumpets to the world. So whether you are an international social network or a local plumber, think through the PR consequences of your strategy, before you implement it, if you want to avoid potential long-lasting reputational damage.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | Creative, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has Twitter spawned Jeremy Corbyn?

Amidst all the column inches written about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, there are a couple of factors that people seem to be forgetting. True, he is probably now the most famous Jeremy in the country (according to an unscientific Google search I just carried out, links to stories about him outrank Clarkson and Kyle), but he is actually part of a wider protest movement across the Western world. Far left Greek party Syriza has just been re-elected, despite backtracking on its promises to free Greece from onerous bail-out terms. Spanish left wingers Podemos have also shown well in opinion polls while Catalan nationalists won a majority, albeit a slim one, in this week’s regional elections. Going back to the UK, look at the success of the Scottish Nationalists at the election and the continued high profile of Nigel Farage.

Jeremy Corbyn

Across the pond, non-politicians such as Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have been leading polls amongst Republicans, while Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as “the only elected socialist in Congress”, is keeping Hillary Clinton honest in the Democratic contest.

So why are voters across Europe and the United States supporting mavericks on the right and left, even if in many cases there is little chance that they will be able to carry out their policies?

No dead pig bounce
The easy answer is that they are sick of career politicians who seem keener on hanging onto power than actually connecting with voters. Many people think politics itself is broken. Even David Cameron’s alleged assignation with a dead pig just makes us shrug and doesn’t really impact his ratings either way. At the same time many people still don’t see the good times coming back after the recession – real wages in the UK are still below those of before the crash for many people, hurting confidence. Globalisation and the rise of ever-more intelligent computers is eating into traditional middle class occupations, causing uncertainty for those with skills that can be potentially automated or offshored.

Obviously, any alternative to this combination of depression and drabness has a chance to stand out from the crowd. And challenger politicians can get away with half-baked policies or even, as in the case of Donald Trump, a promise that he’ll come up with some “really good ideas” when he is elected.

But I think there is a more fundamental force at work – the internet and social media has completely changed how we consume our news and form our opinions. We live in Andy Warhol’s era of everyone being famous for 15 minutes, from a man captured on camera abusing a motorcyclist to celebrities reciting music lyrics with a Shakespearean twist.

What the likes of Corbyn and Trump share, despite their radically different views, share is a combination of solidity, outsider status and an ability to come up with inspiring (or eyecatching) soundbites that suit social media. They don’t appear stage managed but at the same time are reassuring while not being part of the establishment.

Politics 2.0
In many ways they are the start-ups of the political world, promising radical change to shake up a traditional market, in the same way that the likes of Google, Amazon and Uber have changed the industries they operate in. Perhaps voters believe that politics can be re-invented, just like retail and telecoms.

What will be interesting to see is how traditional politicians respond – will they continue to operate as before, like many of the companies that digital start-ups displaced, or can they re-invent themselves successfully and build a brand that fits with the internet electorate? Or will we see a new generation of less radical, but more social media savvy, politicians come through to replace the likes of Corbyn and Trump? One thing is for certain, in politics as in every other sector, those that cope best with today’s social, mobile world will be those that engage with voters and ultimately win their loyalty and power.

September 30, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Facebook take over the world?


Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

Last week Facebook announced that on Monday 24th August 1 billion people logged into the social network. That’s 15% (almost one in seven) of the world’s population using Facebook in a 24 hour period. And given that over half of the globe still isn’t online, the percentage of actual versus potential users is actually much higher – closer to 33% of the 3.195 billion internet users.

The announcement begs three big questions:

1.Is it a good thing?
It is difficult to find a parallel in history for a single entity being used by so many people across the world. There have been monopolies in the past of course, particularly in telecoms before deregulation, but these operated at a country level, and you didn’t have a choice. You wanted to make a phone call and you had to use BT or AT&T. When it comes to control over how people communicate the only example that comes to mind is organised religion, such as the pre-Reformation Catholic Church where all of Europe was subservient to the Pope. As yet, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t branded any Twitter users as heretics, for which we should obviously be grateful.

Critics will argue that having one company central to how we communicate with friends and family, find our news and even shop is a bad thing. On the other hand, Facebook fans will point out that you have a choice – other social networks are available and the past is littered with previously successful companies (such as MySpace) that failed to evolve. This does ignore the impact of the network effect – as more and more people are on Facebook, it becomes increasingly necessary to be on there if you don’t want to miss out. Technically it is very easy for anyone to create a new social network, what is difficult is enticing enough people to join to make it necessary for their friends to also jump aboard.

What is definitely true is that Facebook, like other international online giants, does need to scrutiny that matches its power and reach. I’m not talking about regulation per se, but any organisation that has Facebook’s combination of personal demographic data and ability to analyse it on a grand scale has to meet the highest standards of behaviour.

2.What about the other 85%?
The obvious point that many people have made is that if 1 billion people were on Facebook on a single day, the remainder of the world (85% in fact), were doing something different. As we’ve seen, Facebook has captured a large percentage of the online population, which is why the company’s efforts are being put into increasing the number of people with access to the internet in some form. Its main vehicle for getting people online is, which provides free basic internet services in areas where it is either non-existent or unaffordable. Some of the ways is looking to extend coverage include high altitude planes beaming a signal to a particular area, lasers and satellite technologies. However has attracted criticism for only providing access to a walled garden of services, including (surprise surprise) Facebook itself.

Clearly if Facebook is to grow it is easier to expand the pie of internet users and reach the currently unconnected, rather than target the refuseniks in countries where it already enjoys high penetration rates. Expect more efforts to extend internet access – probably not just within developing countries but also within ‘notspots’ inside existing markets, thereby encouraging people to use the service even more.

3.Where next for Facebook?
Facebook has already overcome two major hurdles that have defeated its rivals. It has successfully transitioned to a mobile-first world (87% of access is from mobile devices), and is generating growing profits. As well as extending its reach to new victims (sorry, consumers), it also needs to increase engagement – i.e. ensure people still log on and use the service, and do it more often and for longer. The big bet that Zuckerberg has made here is on virtual reality, with the $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR expected to spawn headsets that deepen the experience of using Facebook and interacting with your friends. This, for me, is where things start to get more than a little creepy – if people are addicted to Facebook now, just imagine the time they’ll spend online if they can essentially experience reality without leaving their screen. Plus, with the current size and design of headsets, everyone will look like they are part of Daft Punk.

So, to answer my three questions, I’d say we should be wary about Facebook’s might, keep an eye on its efforts to reach the other 85% to ensure there is a level playing field when it comes to access, and be sceptical about the advantages virtual reality can actually bring us. After all, you could just pick up the phone and talk or, heaven forbid, chat to someone down the pub……

September 2, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Death of a (car) salesman

Like anything, buying a new car has positive and negative parts to the journey. The excitement of choosing and test driving a shiny new vehicle has to be balanced with haggling with a salesman in a dealership and painfully avoiding the add-ons and extra warranties that they want to burden you with (and co-incidentally give them a bigger commission than on the car itself).

Automobile dealership - service and repair are...

Yet, the internet was meant to remove middlemen and enable us to deal direct with the producer. It has worked in industries such as travel, where package holiday companies have had to reinvent themselves in an era of cheap flights, AirBnB and TripAdvisor. But for bigger ticket purchases we still rely on car dealers and estate agents rather than dealing directly with manufacturers or those selling their house.

The end of middlemen?
So why are these middlemen still here and will they survive for much longer? After all, most buyers now read car reviews online, check manufacturer videos on YouTube, get information on options from websites, and can arrange finance quickly at the click of a mouse. No wonder that the average number of dealers that buyers visit when purchasing a new car has dropped from 5 to 1.6 in the US over the last ten years. As in a lot of fields, more and more research is carried out online without needing to interact with anyone, let alone a sweaty dealer in an ill-fitting suit.

Illustrating this trend, upstart electric car company Tesla is looking to go direct to customers in the US, cutting out dealers altogether. Other manufacturers are trying more limited experiments with special editions sold online only or dealerships remodelled to be more like the Apple Store, with advisors providing information and help, but no hard sell.

The pace of technology change within the car also threatens to make the dealer obsolete. Modern cars are computers on wheels, streaming data back to the manufacturer and able to refresh their operating system remotely without human (or mechanic) intervention. Tesla regularly updates the software on its car over the air– with an upgrade in January 2015 improving the performance of its Model S, meaning it can match the acceleration of a McLaren MP4-12C.

However as a recent piece in The Economist points out, changing the system will be difficult. Dealers are a powerful lobby, and while they don’t make much money on each new car they sell, the ancillary products and ongoing servicing relationship can be extremely lucrative. It also provides buyers with the opportunity to get a better deal by haggling between rival garages – if you have the inclination to do so.

I think that there are more basic reasons for any middleman, whether a car dealer or travel agent, to survive – adding value, trust and ease. These are important concepts for any company in the digital age to embrace and it is worth looking at your business with these in mind.

1. Adding value
With the vast majority of information now a Google search away on the internet, and prices displayed for everyone to see, do you really add value or are you a hindrance to the process? Again, the Apple Store is a good example to follow. You can buy your iPad from one of a hundred shops or websites, but the help you receive and the ability to get your questions answered in a positive, unpatronising way naturally leads people to the Apple Store.

2. Trust
Do consumers trust you? Or more to the point, do they trust you more than the manufacturer you represent? One of the factors I think will hold back the demise of dealerships is that consumers trust car makers less. You only have to look at botched recalls and unreported faults to see why. Car makers are also much more distant than your local dealership, making it difficult to build a relationship of trust. That’s not to say dealers are safe – they regularly top polls of least trustworthy occupations, but in the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

3. Ease
People have to do more and more with less and less time. In many ways the internet has made us more time-poor. Whereas before a holiday could be booked by marching into the travel agency and asking what they had available, it now takes hours of internet research, comparing the relative locations of villas on Google Maps and poring over TripAdvisor reviews. Those middlemen that still have a place recognise that they need to make things easy, providing a helpful service that cuts down the time you need to spend and removes roadblocks from the customer journey, without charging the earth.

Looking at your own business, do you meet these three criteria? If not, it is time to change, before pressure from consumers and manufacturers squeezes you out of the market.

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, Social Media, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Football crazy? Can clubs control the media?

The new football season is already nearly a month old, and while action on the pitch is taking centre stage, how fans get information about their team is also becoming a hot topic for debate. Several clubs, such as Swindon and Newcastle, have banned certain newspapers from attending their press conferences or talking to their managers and players. The reason? They prefer to communicate direct with fans through club websites, newsfeeds, social media, apps or even in-house TV channels. Scottish club Rangers has even banned particular journalists due to not liking the articles they’ve written about the club’s governance or finances.

Polish Football Fans 001

In a way this approach simply fits with the ability of the internet to remove middlemen (in this case the media) and to connect brands directly with their audiences. However it also sets a dangerous precedent – with coverage reduced to happy soundbites stage managed by the club’s PR team. The decline of newspaper and magazine staff numbers has tipped the balance in favour of big brands, with many journalists now using their skills to publicise companies and PR agencies. Football teams are not the only brands aiming to do this, using the distribution mechanisms of the internet and social media to get their message out unfettered by the critical filter of the press.

As a PR person I can see the initial attraction in this – after all, what marketing manager doesn’t want guaranteed 100% positive coverage? But it isn’t sustainable. One of the reasons for the rise of PR was that an independent article in a newspaper or an interview on the radio was more believable, and therefore worth more than an advert. While the internet has blurred the lines, I’m convinced people still react best to coverage that delves deeper than a press officer’s prepared statement. Football is the perfect case in point – fans may love their club, but be intensely suspicious of the owners, board, manager or particular players. Take the frequent demonstrations at matches and the vitriol directed at players on social media. Therefore simply providing bland statements of how the new centre forward is looking forward to the season ahead and how wonderful the training facilities are, is not going to keep true fans interested or happy. At the same time social media, while providing a channel for brands, also actively undermines them by making it easy and fast to share unofficial information. This could come from anywhere – a disaffected (or unthinking) player, a taxi driver that overheard a conversation or a barman that saw that same new centre forward slumped over his pint the night before his debut.

What brands (of all sizes) need to realise is that you need three different types of content (paid, earned and owned) to build your profile. There is paid media, essentially advertising and sponsorship, where it is normally clear that money has changed hands. Earned content is when a third party (which could be a publication or simply a fan on social media) shares or publicises your messages. Finally, owned media are the channels you control – from in-house TV channels to websites and Twitter feeds.

Successful brands combine all three of these in a cohesive way that builds engagement. Fans will want to the chance to interact directly with you and get information straight from the horse’s mouth, but at the same time they want independent verification through trusted third parties such as the press and the backing of their peers through social networks. And these same social networks provide the platform for independent fans and commentators to create and share their own content, outside the club’s control. Therefore the football clubs that have succumbed to the beguiling fantasy of controlling the news should take a step back and look at organisations and countries such as Soviet Russia that have relied on propaganda. Citizens stop believing in the news they read and before too long even the most rigid states begin to show cracks and eventually collapse.

August 19, 2015 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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